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Confederate monument controversy dominates comments portion at BOC meeting

COVINGTON, Ga. – With an election looming in less than two years and legislation pending at the Capitol to strengthen an already existing law that protects it, discussion about what to do with the Confederate memorial on the Covington square dominated the comments portion of Tuesday’s Newton County Board of Commissioners meeting.

There are three commission district seats as well as the chairman's post up in 2020.

Late in the nearly three-hour meeting, anti-statue activist Gene Wills told commissioners those who didn’t support removing the statue are complicit in what he says it stands for.

”The lines have been drawn in the sand,” he said. “Those who vote ‘No’ on the statue will be forever tied to it - to slavery, Jim Crow, neo-Nazi, the Klan.

Wills also said his organization, East Metro for Social Justice, plans to start phone and letter writing campaigns calling out commissioners.

“We’re going to be very active in writing to the editor, sending letters to the editor from locally, to the city and we’re going to put names with the statue, with hate,” he said. "And we’re going to launch a phone call campaign. Ones who supposedly have friends who're voting no, we’re going to call your district and let them know how you really feel.”

During commissioner’s comments, District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan, one of the commissioners up for reelection in 2020, said the Georgia General Assembly is currently considering legislation that will dictate what local government can do with Confederate monuments. He said it’s important to wait and see what the state decides.

“Government takes a while,” he said. “We have to move deliberatively. We’re not designed to have knee-jerk reactions to things.

“I know there are some bills pending in the state legislature regarding Confederate monuments and things like that. Most of us, I think,  from our discussions here, are intent on waiting to see what the state of Georgia says in regards to that so we make sure that we’re not doing anything contrary to what the law says.”

District 4 Commissioner J.C. Henderson, reelected last year, said he thinks it’s time for the issue to be discussed.

”I was so concerned that I asked that a letter be written to my fellow commissioners asking that the statue issue be put on the agenda,” he said. "Unfortunately, one commissioner can’t put something on the agenda, it takes a majority.  We couldn’t get three votes just to have a discussion.

“It doesn’t take the state legislature to tell me what to do right. I have a conscious. I go to church. I think most everybody does. I think at the very least, there should be a discussion.”

Commissioner Nancy Schulz, whose District 3 seat is also up next year, said two of three bills currently under consideration give the authority to decide what happens to monuments like the one on the square back to local governments.

“The two bills that give it local control are dying unless the public responds,” she said. “Just know that we are always in support of decisions being made at the local level.”

District 2 Commissioner Demond Mason, elected last year, said holding onto anything that divides a community is not good for that community.

“We are moving in a positive direction in our county,” he said. "I can see us working toward another level of unity. I firmly believe that it might not be in our county’s best interests to hold on to something that might potentially divide us as a county. We want to do the right thing. We want to move in the right direction.”

Prior to updating commissioners on the three pieces of pending legislation in the general assembly, County Attorney Megan Martin said the county has already explored the legality of moving the statue under the current state law. She said current law is less restrictive than a Senate bill under consideration now in the legislature.

“The provision of OCGA- 50-3-1, that’s what we’ve all been trying to figure out about can we relocate the statue itself,” she said. "That statute is not as protective of the Confederate memorials as the pending Senate Bill 77. If the statue were moved somewhere where it was visible, I believe that would be defensible under the current law.”

Martin said one bill, Senate Bill 51, would give the board of commissioners control of the statue.

“It would allow the board of commissioners to make the decision where the Confederate memorial, or any memorial for that fact, could be,” she said.

Martin said House Bill 175 would prohibit the display of monuments of memorabilia on public property except on Civil War battlefields. She said both bills are predicted to fail.

Martin said the Senate bill offers the monuments more protections than the current law.

“There will be no local control if Senate Bill 77 is passed,” she said. “The bill does protect the monuments. It does not protect them by name, but it does define those monuments very broadly to include the Confederate memorial monument. If this is signed into law, the local laws that a board would take or establish would be totally prevented.

"The legislation is clear as it can be that we would have no decision making when it comes to what the culture of our county is or what this board believes would be best for the citizens.”

In an email Thursday, Martin told The Covington News her office started looking at the legality of moving the statue in 2017.

“Our office first reviewed this matter in late 2017,” she said. "As you remember, a town hall was also held on this matter in 2017 where citizens spoke about their concerns relating to this issue.”